Cricket's cultural revolution: the renaissance of a national game

The decline of England's summer sport after 1981 owed as much to society's ills as to cricket itself. Similarly, its spectacular return has many diverse causes ... from Tony Blair to football
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The Independent Online

Jonathan Agnew, the former Leicestershire and England fast bowler who is now the BBC's cricket correspondent, says that an England triumph at The Oval will be as joyous an event as the winning of the football World Cup in 1966. I can remember that victory, could name the England side, half the Germans and even that nice moustachioed Russian who persuaded himself that Geoff Hurst's shot had crossed the line. Hurst scored a hat-trick, Martin Peters got the other one. Nobby Stiles snapped at numerous ankles, Bobby Charlton was majestic, his brother Jack presided over the penalty area, Bobby Moore was serenity itself, Gordon Banks was flawless between the posts, Alan Ball was everywhere. The crowd developed its own clap. It was a dreadful, dirty World Cup but England won. Who cared about the rest?

And The Oval is bigger than that? Agnew's comment begs a question. What the hell went wrong in between? English football held its own until the 1970s and cricket flourished until 1981 but then began a long slide evident to a greater and lesser degree in every nook and cranny of the nation.

English cricket's troubles started in the 1980s. England's national deterioration started in the same decade. The idea that sport exists apart from other forces is preposterous: certainly, C L R James and John Arlott gave it short shrift. Its location as the last item on news broadcasts and on the back pages of newspapers is merely a convenience. Sport is not played in another country. Nor is it isolated or trivial, merely unimportant.

Inevitably, the way a country plays cricket reflects broader forces in society. A child would not argue otherwise. West Indian cricket displays a lack of managerial experience while a generation of players is following the same path as black popular music, from sorrow to cheerfulness and on to self-indulgent anger (and, it must be hoped, beyond). Likewise, the current Indian team captures the new confidence of a country no longer torn between Western affluence and ancient customs, but prepared to look both in the eye and to take the best they have to offer. Most of the leading cricket writers nowadays come from India; not the coaches, though. None of the 10 Test teams is coached by a black or brown man.

Of course, the inexorable collapse of English sport in the 1980s was caused by factors beyond the incompetence of those directly involved. A nation had lost its identity, no longer knew itself. England became an inward-looking land. Thatcherism had run its course and the country was left drifting midway between her discipline and Blairite renewal. Into the vacuum marched the greed, selfishness and egoism that spread across the land. Celebrityism, yobbos, puritanism and prurience combined to bring the country to its knees. Comedy and creativity suffered. Reality television and endless confessional shows took their place. It was death in another form.

Thatcher went on too long, had nothing more to offer. She knighted David English and empowered Piers Morgan and Kelvin Mackenzie. Those seeking to attach blame for this country's decline might consider this ghastly collection of charming creeps.

Unfortunately, rival parties had meanwhile taken leave of their senses. Hurrying towards irrelevance, Labour disdained Denis Healey and Roy Hattersley. Joining the madness, the Conservatives subsequently disowned Ken Clarke. Unsurprisingly, a strong third party emerged from this crassness. England has not had a serious electoral choice for a quarter of a century.

In the years that came between Thatcher neo-liberalism and Blair modernism, England suffered from a lack of conviction. Forced to choose between a return to Anglo-Saxon straightforwardness and the higher sophistication of northern Europe, it floundered. Both are coherent positions. The halfway house does not work. Education collapsed and newspapers went from bad to worse as Rupert Murdoch exacted vengeance for past snubs. He is laughing at England.

English cricket could hardly hope to remain immune to these debilitations. Sporting success depends on a supreme gathering of the will. Without belief, nothing can be accomplished. Those who arranged the singing of "Jerusalem" before each day's play in this Ashes series have grasped the point. So has that destroyer of cynicism, the Barmy Army.

For 15 years English sport was sustained by strong individuals like Coe, Ovett and Faldo. Meanwhile, football fell foul of the yob culture. Cricket also lost its head, with rebel tours, contrived matches, lob bowling, and worse, and these at the highest levels. Botham and Gascoigne were the champions of the age. Unsurprisingly, neither cricket nor football could find an English manager or coach capable of confronting the prevailing culture. Even the rugby codes, those impressive representations of capital and labour, fell foul of the prevailing mood.

As a nation, England had to choose between its stoical past and the intelligence of Europe. Clearly, the Conservative Party is still trying to resolve this dilemma. Eventually football, or rather the chairmen of ambitious clubs, took the European route. John Toshack points out that hardly any of Britain's top football teams are managed by Englishmen and argues that the ejection from European competition that followed the tragedy at Heysel Stadium caused a loss of confidence and experience. But that disaster was itself caused by the same craven capitulations.

Of course, socio-political considerations were not the only causes of the decline of English sport. England had snobbishly omitted to take sport seriously enough. Australia made the same mistake and found by the mid-1980s that it could no longer compete. Entire Olympic Games went by without any Australian making an impression. This did not go down well. Steps were taken to improve matters, with the creation of an Institute of Sport and a cricket academy. England was slower off the mark. Spain and Sweden - the West's two great sporting nations - were streets ahead.

Desperate to break the cycle, the more advanced English football clubs turned towards Europe. Frenchmen, Swedes, Portuguese and Spaniards were invited to take charge of leading teams. The culture of the game started to improve, though the news took an unconscionable time to reach Leeds and Newcastle. Of course, it was not only a question of management. Others steps were taken to brighten the game. Lighter balls, better pitches and less tolerant referees helped. Television brought money and glamour. My large, adopted and football-mad family in Africa does not support the Kaiser Chiefs or the Orlando Pirates. Chelsea and Manchester United are their teams.

Football also had the sense to embrace local Afro-Caribbean communities. Not that it had a choice, for their talent and commitment could not be missed. Every year more and more young black men appear in the colours of famous English clubs. Athletics, too, has been strengthened by their contributions.

Football has not looked back. Other clubs responded to the challenge by raising their own standards. Anyone doubting the extent of England's footballing revival need only consider the performances of Bolton and Charlton, smaller clubs guided towards the top by managers cut from the local stone.

There was nothing wrong with England or Englishmen in the first place. It is a great country with a proud history that has produced Shakespeare, Dad's Army and Reggie Perrin. Bad habits had crept in, that is all. As the great songster pointed out, a nation is "either busy bein' born or busy dyin'."

Because the game is thinly played in Europe, cricket was obliged to search elsewhere for its recovery. Cricket had some particular problems. Private schools and mining towns had been reliable sources of cricketing talent.

Professional cricket had its origins in Nottingham, the birthplace of the Luddites and the city where craftsmen started to appreciate the value of their work. The England fast bowlers Harold Larwood and Bill Voce emerged from a proud and independent tradition. Yorkshire cricket was built on similarly strong foundations. Qualities of this sort are not easily replaced. Warwickshire have become the most advanced and productive of the counties.

Private schools were English cricket's other production line, a position they still hold in Africa, though not elsewhere. The decline of the empire and the collapse of the economy after the Second World War took a toll on the schools and the families that kept them in business. Inevitably, the idea of education for its own sake proved unsustainable. Accordingly, the stoic and classical traditions were replaced by consumerism. Money had to be put on the table. Once the schools had lost their sense of purpose there was precious little point keeping them open. Of course, players periodically emerge, but not a Dexter, May or Cowdrey.

English schools can no longer be relied on to produce high-class players. Not long ago, a coach at a respected cricketing school asked for an opinion about a promising player. My observation that he had fine prospects but was unfit and immobile and needed a programme of early-morning runs was dismissed with an airy, "But we want him to enjoy his cricket". So did I. He did not make it and remains unfulfilled. Amazingly, the coach has not resigned.

It took England a long time to realise that their supply lines had dried up. Eventually, the need to build an effective domestic structure was grasped. When the action came it was impressive. A plan was put in place. Four-day cricket, central contracts, two divisions and academies followed. Attention was also paid to the recreational game. Minor counties started playing three-day matches. Clubs were pushed towards longer matches. Whereas in 1995 clubs routinely played 46-over games with two usually ageing trundlers allowed to bowl 23 apiece, now it is 55 overs a side, with limitations. Believe me, it is a young man's game.

English cricket has also had the sense to tap into stronger sporting cultures. Unable to find men of distinction in its own ranks - the former England captain Mike Brearley was otherwise engaged and Ken Barrington had died young when England's assistant manager - officials asked Australians to run the national academy and several county teams. An African educated in the strong ethics of Prince Edward's school in Harare became national coach. Beyond doubt, these men helped to instil strong values in their charges.

Nor were England content merely to catch up. Twenty-over cricket was a gamble. As usual, the senior counties were against it, a point they seem to have forgotten. Lord's decided to give it a go. Now the rest of the cricketing world is copying. It is a game for the bold and the brave.

England's sporting culture has improved in leaps and bounds. Not so long ago young English professionals floundered in Australian grade cricket. Attitude was the main problem. Now Jon Lewis, Ben Smith, Matthew Wood and Andrew Strauss (on his second visit ) count among those who have served their country and profession proud. Nor have the lesser known been remotely as embarrassing. Even gap students seem to be brighter as they plunge in the waves on Bondi beach.

Impressive past players are emerging, not least Michael Atherton and Angus Fraser, and not merely as critics. Neither West Indies or India have been as lucky in that regard. Contrastingly, Australia have made excellent use of the expertise at their disposal. The elders of the game have a crucial part to play, especially those not long from the field.

Andrew Flintoff has been the proverbial icing on the cake. His emergence was no more inevitable than Shane Warne's or Glenn McGrath's. Indeed, it took five years, a delay that spoke volumes. Not until the culture of the game was strong did his talent start to emerge. Good captaincy helped. Michael Vaughan has been able to build on the foundations laid by Nasser Hussain. Provided the Lancastrian keeps his head, he will continue to prosper. Luckily, he has married well. Botham's sad decline started in 1981. Flintoff's fame came later and he has a much better chance of surviving it.

Win or lose at The Oval, English cricket must continue its forward march. Players must continue to give more than they take. Otherwise the moment will pass. Hunger cannot be sated by the recapturing of one trophy. Cricket's ambitions must be higher. It must take this chance to become a truly national and multi-cultural game. It is not an easy combination, but it is nothing less than the challenge faced by the entire world.